Over the years, I've written a number of times about the importance of good customer service. I've discussed the need to go that extra mile for a client, as well as more mundane things such as always returning phone calls and staying on schedule. But recently, I had an experience that illuminated another aspect of great service — something crucial yet rarely touched upon.

A couple of weeks ago one of my teeth became infected, and my dentist felt the only option was to extract it. Though his diagnosis sounded right, the idea of losing a tooth was depressing. So I visited an oral surgeon for a second opinion.

The moment I walked into Dr. Rami Etessami's waiting room, I was struck by a series of interesting contrasts. A framed print with the words of an ancient Jewish scholar sat near an autographed photo of Jack Nicholson who lavishly praises the doc. A recent piece of fan mail from a young child was proudly taped up at the reception desk.

I soon joined the ranks of those who appreciate him. Dr. Ettessami has a true passion for dentistry. In his eyes, every tooth is a design miracle, and fixing them gives him genuine happiness.

Unfortunately, he agreed that my tooth had to go. He then listened closely as I explained how badly I wanted to keep it, and asked if there was anything he could do.

After a pause, he said, yes, there was a surgery we could try, but it only had a tiny chance of succeeding. He explained that he couldn't in good faith even charge me for it, since the odds were so lousy. But, if I wanted, we could give it a shot. I wanted.

I won't know for a while if the tooth is viable, but I do know what Jack Nicholson and a young child both saw in Dr. Ettessami. They saw human kindness. They saw a heartfelt desire to make other people's lives better. They saw the ability to listen and truly care.

I've had many customer service interactions where everything was done perfectly, and I forgot the experience. Yet I remember, with perfect clarity, the salesman from Foot Locker who gave my son a soda and made him laugh after he'd thrown up in their wastebasket. I still buy my sneakers at Foot Locker today, 10 years later.

Will kindness save a business in a down market? Of course not. But it will generate more word-of-mouth referrals than the cleverest of advertising materials. It will give your company the lion's share of whatever work is out there. And perhaps most important of all, even in the darkest of financial times, kindness illuminates the world around you.